British idealism

A species of absolute idealism, British idealism was a philosophical movement that was influential in Britain from the mid-nineteenth century to the early twentieth century. The leading figures in the movement were T. H. Green (1836–1882), F. H. Bradley (1846–1924), and Bernard Bosanquet (1848–1923). They were succeeded by the second generation of J. M. E. McTaggart (1866–1925), H. H. Joachim (1868–1938), J. H. Muirhead (1855–1940), and R. G. Collingwood (1889-1943). The last major figure in the tradition was G. R. G. Mure (1893–1979). Doctrines of early British idealism so provoked the young Cambridge philosophers G. E. Moore and Bertrand Russell that they began a new philosophical tradition, analytic philosophy.[1]

Bradley, the most famous British idealist


Though much more variegated than some commentaries would seem to suggest, British idealism was generally marked by several broad tendencies: a belief in an Absolute (a single all-encompassing reality that in some sense formed a coherent and all-inclusive system); the assignment of a high place to reason as both the faculty by which the Absolute's structure is grasped and as that structure itself; and a fundamental unwillingness to accept a dichotomy between thought and object, reality consisting of thought-and-object together in a strongly coherent unity.

British idealism largely developed from the German idealist movement—particularly such philosophers as Immanuel Kant and G. W. F. Hegel, who were characterised by Green, among others, as the salvation of British philosophy after the alleged demise of empiricism. The movement was certainly a reaction against the thinking of John Locke, David Hume, John Stuart Mill, Henry Sidgwick, and other empiricists and utilitarians. Some of those involved would have denied any specific influence, particularly with respect to Hegel. Nevertheless, James Hutchison Stirling's book The Secret of Hegel is believed to have won significant converts in Britain.

British idealism was influenced by Hegel at least in broad outline, and undeniably adopted some of Hegel's terminology and doctrines. Examples include not only the aforementioned Absolute, but also a doctrine of internal relations, a coherence theory of truth, and a concept of a concrete universal. Some commentators have also pointed to a sort of dialectical structure in e.g. some of the writings of Bradley. But few of the British idealists adopted Hegel's philosophy wholesale, and his most significant writings on logic seem to have found no purchase whatsoever in their thought. On the other hand, Mure was “a deep student of Hegel”[2] who “was committed to Hegel’s ‘central ontological thesis’ all his life.”.[3]

On its political side, the British idealists were largely concerned to refute what they regarded as a brittle and "atomistic" form of individualism, as espoused by e.g. Herbert Spencer. In their view, humans are fundamentally social beings in a manner and to a degree not adequately recognized by Spencer and his followers. The British Idealists did not, however, reify the State in the manner that Hegel apparently did; Green in particular spoke of the individual as the sole locus of value and contended that the State's existence was justified only insofar as it contributed to the realization of value in the lives of individual persons.

The hold of British idealism in the United Kingdom weakened when Bertrand Russell and G. E. Moore, who were educated in the British idealist tradition, turned against it. Moore in particular delivered what quickly came to be accepted as conclusive arguments against Idealism. In the late 1950s G. R. G. Mure, in his Retreat From Truth (Oxford 1958), criticized Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and aspects of analytic philosophy from an idealist point of view.

British idealism's influence in the United States was somewhat limited. The early thought of Josiah Royce had something of a neo-Hegelian cast, as did that of a handful of his less famous contemporaries. The American rationalist Brand Blanshard was so strongly influenced by Bradley, Bosanquet, and Green (and other British philosophers) that he could almost be classified as a British philosopher himself. Even this limited influence, though, petered out through the latter half of the twentieth century. However, from the 1990s on, there has been a significant revival in interest in these ideas, as evidenced by, for instance, by the founding of the Michael Oakeshott Association, and renewed attention to the work of Collingwood, Green, and Bosanquet.

See also


  1. ^ Griffin, Nicholas (2013). "Russell and Moore’s Revolt against British Idealism", in The Oxford handbook of the history of analytic philosophy, edited by Michael Beaney. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 383–406. ISBN 9780199238842.
  2. ^ Weiss, Frederick (July 1971), "Recent Work on Hegel", North American Philosophical Publications, 8 (3), pp. 203–222
  3. ^ Harris, Henry (2007), "Would Hegel Be A 'Hegelian' Today?", Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy, 3 (2–3), pp. 5–15


  • Sorley, William Ritchie. 1920. A History of English Philosophy.
    • An idiosyncratic account of English-language philosophy with an emphasis on idealism, later republished as A History of British Philosophy to 1900.
  • 'British Absolute Idealism: From Green to Bradley', in Jeremy Dunham, Iain Hamilton Grant and Sean Watson (eds), Idealism (Acumen, 2011).
19th-century philosophy

In the 19th century, the philosophies of the Enlightenment began to have a dramatic effect, the landmark works of philosophers such as Immanuel Kant and Jean-Jacques Rousseau influencing new generations of thinkers. In the late 18th century a movement known as Romanticism began; it validated strong emotion as an authentic not of aesthetic experience, placing new emphasis on such emotions as trepidation, horror and terror and awe. Key ideas that sparked changes in philosophy were the fast progress of science; evolution, as postulated by Vanini, Diderot, Lord Monboddo, Erasmus Darwin, Lamarck, Goethe, and Charles Darwin; and what might now be called emergent order, such as the free market of Adam Smith within nation states. Pressures for egalitarianism, and more rapid change culminated in a period of revolution and turbulence that would see philosophy change as well.

Absolute idealism

Absolute idealism is an ontologically monistic philosophy "chiefly associated with Friedrich Schelling and G. W. F. Hegel, both German idealist philosophers of the 19th century, Josiah Royce, an American philosopher, and others, but, in its essentials, the product of Hegel". It is Hegel's account of how being is ultimately comprehensible as an all-inclusive whole (das Absolute). Hegel asserted that in order for the thinking subject (human reason or consciousness) to be able to know its object (the world) at all, there must be in some sense an identity of thought and being. Otherwise, the subject would never have access to the object and we would have no certainty about any of our knowledge of the world. To account for the differences between thought and being, however, as well as the richness and diversity of each, the unity of thought and being cannot be expressed as the abstract identity "A=A". Absolute idealism is the attempt to demonstrate this unity using a new "speculative" philosophical method, which requires new concepts and rules of logic. According to Hegel, the absolute ground of being is essentially a dynamic, historical process of necessity that unfolds by itself in the form of increasingly complex forms of being and of consciousness, ultimately giving rise to all the diversity in the world and in the concepts with which we think and make sense of the world.The absolute idealist position dominated philosophy in nineteenth-century England and Germany, while exerting significantly less influence in the United States. The absolute idealist position should be distinguished from the subjective idealism of Berkeley, the transcendental idealism of Kant, or the post-Kantian transcendental idealism (also known as critical idealism) of Fichte and of the early Schelling.

Bernard Bosanquet (philosopher)

Bernard Bosanquet, FBA (; 14 June 1848 – 8 February 1923) was a British philosopher and political theorist, and an influential figure on matters of political and social policy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His work influenced but was later subject to criticism by many thinkers, notably Bertrand Russell, John Dewey and William James. Bernard was the husband of Charity Organisation Society leader Helen Bosanquet.

British philosophy

British philosophy refers to the philosophical tradition of the British people. "The native characteristics of British philosophy are these: common sense, dislike of complication, a strong preference for the concrete over the abstract and a certain awkward honesty of method in which an occasional pearl of poetry is embedded".

Canadian idealism

Canadian idealism is a Canadian philosophical tradition that stemmed from British idealism.

The early idealists include George Paxton Young (1818–1889) who began teaching at Knox College in 1851, Samuel Dyde (1862-1947), and John Watson (1847–1939) who began teaching at Queen's University in 1872. The more recent idealists include philosophers George Parkin Grant (1918–1988), Leslie Armour (1931–2014), and Charles Taylor (born 1931).Both the British and Canadian idealists draw from Georg W. F. Hegel's absolute idealism. There are three pillars to this philosophy. The first pillar is the response to the materialism of the Enlightenment. Idealists argue that the scientific reason of the Enlightenment artificially suppresses a significant dimension of human experience; that is, the cultural framework and historically inherited ideas with which we make sense of the world around us. Idealists hold that knowledge and reason are socially cultivated, not only with our contemporaries but also with our history.The second pillar is the philosophy of history. For idealists, philosophy includes a study of history. To reflect on what we currently believe we must understand the historical dialogue and the conflict of ideas that has brought us to this point. A wide range of subjects from economic rights to the notion of the family come into consideration, but the central question of idealists is how to reconcile civic unity (or the common good) with individual freedom.The third pillar is the formulation of a philosophy of freedom. The concept of culturally embedded knowledge and the historical approach to philosophy set the groundwork for idea of freedom as something that is achieved through a commitment to the community rather than in opposition to it, as is the case with the contract theory of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke for whom freedom is the absence of external interference with our choices (negative liberty). Freedom for the idealists is achieved through the ethical life of our community, not despite it. By participating in our society, engaging in dialogues with others about our proper ends, and giving and receiving the recognition of others that we are free, we cultivate the elements that make us self-governing (or autonomous) individuals, and hence truly free (positive liberty).

Darin Nesbitt

Darin Nesbitt is an instructor of Political Science at Douglas College, in New Westminster, British Columbia, Canada.

He graduated with his Bachelor of Arts Degree from the University of Saskatchewan in 1989, and received his Master of Arts Degree in 1990 from the same university. His M.A. thesis is entitled The Individual and Liberty: The Coherence of John Locke's Thought. He was granted a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Alberta in 1997. His thesis in fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy is A Liberal Theory of Virtue and the Good: The Moral and Political Thought of T.H. Green.

Nesbitt has since authored a number of conference papers, reviewed books, peer reviewed academic articles, and published in academic journals such as Polity and Paideusis. His principal research interests revolve around British Idealism, particularly the late nineteenth-century thinkers Thomas Hill Green and David George Ritchie. His academic publications examine topics such as individual rights, property rights, ethics, and democracy and education.

In addition to teaching political science at Douglas College, Nesbitt has been active in the British Columbia college community system. He was elected Secretary-Treasurer of the Douglas College Faculty Association [1] and assumed the Chair of its Operations and Finance Committee. He also served as the Chair of the British Columbia Political Science Articulation Committee.[2]. Nesbitt was the recipient of a Provincially Initiated Curriculum grant to design an on-line course.

Edwin Lewis

Edwin Lewis (1881–1959) was an American Methodist theologian primarily associated with Drew University in New Jersey.

Born in Great Britain, Lewis traveled to Canada as a missionary before continuing his education in the United States. He eventually became a professor of theology at Drew.

Lewis' early work demonstrates the influence of Boston personalism, a school of Protestant liberal theology widespread among Methodists during the first half of the 20th century, and British idealism. His book Jesus Christ and the Human Quest is an example of his early perspective. In the book, Lewis argues that the Christian faith has its foundation in the nature of persons and personhood.

In 1929 he was named editor of the Abingdon Bible Commentary. While preparing the massive reference work, Lewis claimed to have "rediscovered the Bible" for himself. He reacted strongly to the 1931 report Re-Thinking Missions: A Laymen's Inquiry after One Hundred Years, which he believed hampered the Christian missionary effort,

in his article "The Re-thought Theology of the Re-thinking of Missions" which appeared in the Christian Century.

Growing more suspicious of the subjective theological liberalism of the day, he published A Christian Manifesto in 1934. In the book, Lewis railed against liberal theology (which he referred to as modernism), reasserting classical Christian themes such as the transcendence of God, the sinfulness of humankind, the divinity of Christ, and the objective work of the atonement.

Lewis wrote: "No statement of Christian belief which does not include a supernatural a true statement."He followed A Christian Manifesto with A Philosophy of Christian Revelation and The Creator and the Adversary, both of which continued his reclamation of Christian orthodoxy from an Arminian perspective. Lewis argued that God triumphs over evil by outsuffering and outloving his adversary.Lewis' work proved influential to an entire generation of Methodist theologians, notably Carl Michalson and Albert C. Outler.

F. H. Bradley

Francis Herbert Bradley OM (30 January 1846 – 18 September 1924) was a British idealist philosopher. His most important work was Appearance and Reality (1893).

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (, German: [ˈɡeːɔɐ̯k ˈvɪlhɛlm ˈfʁiːdʁɪç ˈheːɡl̩]; August 27, 1770 – November 14, 1831) was a German philosopher and an important figure of German idealism. He achieved wide recognition in his day and—while primarily influential within the continental tradition of philosophy—has become increasingly influential in the analytic tradition as well. Although Hegel remains a divisive figure, his canonical stature within Western philosophy is universally recognized.

Hegel's principal achievement was his development of a distinctive articulation of idealism, sometimes termed absolute idealism, in which the dualisms of, for instance, mind and nature and subject and object are overcome. His philosophy of spirit conceptually integrates psychology, the state, history, art, religion and philosophy. His account of the master–slave dialectic has been highly influential, especially in 20th-century France. Of special importance is his concept of spirit (Geist, sometimes also translated as "mind") as the historical manifestation of the logical concept and the "sublation" (Aufhebung, integration without elimination or reduction) of seemingly contradictory or opposing factors: examples include the apparent opposition between nature and freedom and between immanence and transcendence. Hegel has been seen in the 20th century as the originator of the thesis, antithesis, synthesis triad, but as an explicit phrase it originated with Johann Gottlieb Fichte.Hegel has influenced many thinkers and writers whose own positions vary widely. Karl Barth described Hegel as a "Protestant Aquinas" while Maurice Merleau-Ponty wrote that "all the great philosophical ideas of the past century—the philosophies of Marx and Nietzsche, phenomenology, German existentialism, and psychoanalysis—had their beginnings in Hegel."

German idealism

German idealism (also known as post-Kantian idealism, post-Kantian philosophy, or simply post-Kantianism) was a philosophical movement that emerged in Germany in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. It began as a reaction to Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. German idealism was closely linked with both Romanticism and the revolutionary politics of the Enlightenment.

The most notable thinkers in the movement were Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, and the proponents of Jena Romanticism (Friedrich Hölderlin, Novalis, and Karl Wilhelm Friedrich Schlegel). Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi, Gottlob Ernst Schulze, Karl Leonhard Reinhold, Salomon Maimon and Friedrich Schleiermacher also made major contributions.

Herbert James Paton

Herbert James Paton FBA FSA Scot (30 March 1887 – 2 August 1969), usually cited as H. J. Paton, was a Scottish philosopher who taught at various university institutions, including Glasgow and Oxford. He worked in British intelligence during the two world wars and played a diplomatic role on behalf of Poland at the 1919 Versailles conference. In 1968, the year before his death, he published The Claim of Scotland, a plea for greater general understanding of the constitutional position of his own native country.


In philosophy, Idealism is the group of metaphysical philosophies that assert that reality, or reality as humans can know it, is fundamentally mental, mentally constructed, or otherwise immaterial. Epistemologically, Idealism manifests as a skepticism about the possibility of knowing any mind-independent thing. In contrast to Materialism, Idealism asserts the primacy of consciousness as the origin and prerequisite of material phenomena. According to this view, consciousness exists before and is the pre-condition of material existence. Consciousness creates and determines the material and not vice versa. Idealism believes consciousness and mind to be the origin of the material world and aims to explain the existing world according to these principles.

Idealism theories are mainly divided into two groups. Subjective idealism takes as its starting point the given fact of human consciousness seeing the existing world as a combination of sensation. Objective idealism posits the existence of an objective consciousness which exists before and, in some sense, independently of human ones. In a sociological sense, idealism emphasizes how human ideas—especially beliefs and values—shape society. As an ontological doctrine, idealism goes further, asserting that all entities are composed of mind or spirit. Idealism thus rejects those physicalist and dualist theories that fail to ascribe priority to the mind.

The earliest extant arguments that the world of experience is grounded in the mental derive from India and Greece. The Hindu idealists in India and the Greek Neoplatonists gave panentheistic arguments for an all-pervading consciousness as the ground or true nature of reality. In contrast, the Yogācāra school, which arose within Mahayana Buddhism in India in the 4th century CE, based its "mind-only" idealism to a greater extent on phenomenological analyses of personal experience. This turn toward the subjective anticipated empiricists such as George Berkeley, who revived idealism in 18th-century Europe by employing skeptical arguments against materialism. Beginning with Immanuel Kant, German idealists such as Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling, and Arthur Schopenhauer dominated 19th-century philosophy. This tradition, which emphasized the mental or "ideal" character of all phenomena, gave birth to idealistic and subjectivist schools ranging from British idealism to phenomenalism to existentialism.

Idealism as a philosophy came under heavy attack in the West at the turn of the 20th century. The most influential critics of both epistemological and ontological idealism were G. E. Moore and Bertrand Russell, but its critics also included the New Realists. According to Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the attacks by Moore and Russell were so influential that even more than 100 years later "any acknowledgment of idealistic tendencies is viewed in the English-speaking world with reservation". However, many aspects and paradigms of idealism did still have a large influence on subsequent philosophy.

J. M. E. McTaggart

John McTaggart Ellis McTaggart, FBA (; 3 September 1866 – 18 January 1925), was an idealist metaphysician. For most of his life McTaggart was a fellow and lecturer in philosophy at Trinity College, Cambridge. He was an exponent of the philosophy of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and among the most notable of the British idealists. McTaggart is known for "The Unreality of Time" (1908), in which he argues that time is unreal. The work has been widely discussed through the 20th Century and into the 21st.

John Alexander Smith

John Alexander Smith (21 April 1863 – 19 December 1939) was a British idealist philosopher, who was the Jowett Lecturer of philosophy at Balliol College, Oxford from 1896 to 1910, and Waynflete Professor of Moral and Metaphysical Philosophy, carrying a Fellowship at Magdalen College in the same university, from 1910 to 1936. He was born in Dingwall and died in Oxford.

John Henry Muirhead

John Henry Muirhead (28 April 1855 – 24 May 1940) was a British philosopher best known for having initiated the Muirhead Library of Philosophy in 1890. He became the first person named to the Chair of Philosophy at the University of Birmingham in 1900.

The Secret of Hegel

The Secret of Hegel: Being the Hegelian System in Origin, Principle, Form and Matter is the full title of an important work on the philosophical system of German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) by James Hutchison Stirling (1820-1909), a Scottish idealist philosopher.

The 1st edition of The Secret of Hegel was published in 2 vols. in 1865 by the London publisher Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts & Green. Vol. 1 contains lxxiv + 465 pages, and Vol. 2 contains viii + 624 pages.

The 2nd, revised, edition of The Secret of Hegel was published in 1 vol. in 1898, and contains xiii + 761 pages. The 2nd, revised, edition (1898) was published simultaneously by 3 different publishers, as follows:

(1) Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd

(2) London: Simpkin, Marshall & Co, Ltd.

(3) New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons

This work has influenced many British philosophers and helped to create the movement known as British idealism.

Thomas Hill Green

Thomas Hill Green (7 April 1836 – 15 March 1882), known as T. H. Green, was an English philosopher, political radical and temperance reformer, and a member of the British idealism movement. Like all the British idealists, Green was influenced by the metaphysical historicism of G. W. F. Hegel. He was one of the thinkers behind the philosophy of social liberalism.

William Sweet

William Sweet is a Canadian philosopher, and a past president of the Canadian Philosophical Association.

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